Monday, November 8, 2010

Over There

Thursday of this week is the holiday originally designated as Armistice Day, marking the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the guns stopped firing in the War to End War. To hardly anyone’s surprise – certainly not that of the veterans of the conflict – the war did not end war. So, in 1954 the day was expanded to recognize veterans of all wars, which is fair enough. The legacy of World War One, however, remains special.

Only one US veteran of WW1 is alive today: 109 year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles of West Virginia. He was sent to France in 1918 where he served with the Army's 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment, which was a medical unit, not, as one might think, a pretty laid-back bunch of guys. (Frank later survived 39 months in a Japanese prison camp, but that was another war and another time.) Frank is the last American – and one of the few people anywhere – to have witnessed WW1 first hand as a soldier, but the events of 1914-18 still matter to the rest of us.

It takes at least a century to get past a really big war. Consider the American Civil War. As late as the presidential election of 1968, a regional candidate won the electoral votes of five Southern States over issues unresolved in 1865. In a similar way, World War One has yet to release its grip in 2010. Referencing a catchy wartime slogan, a sour (and accurate) joke in the 1920s and 1930s was that the war made the world safe for fascism and communism. The struggles for and against those ideologies dominated the rest of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we are still embroiled in the aftermath of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the victors of WW1. The Great War still matters.

None of the ongoing turmoil is the fault of the 61,526,000 soldiers mobilized by all belligerents in the war, 9,721,937 of whom (including 116,708 Americans), by official count, were killed – almost surely an undercount. Civilian deaths, not counting those from disease, only can be estimated, but are often put at 8,000,000. They deserved better from the politicians who squandered first their lives and then the peace. They still do, and so do we. If and when we finally wrap up World War One, perhaps we can turn our attention to finishing up World War Two.

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